Bradford Cox has a special way of making people uncomfortable, and not just by way of fashion faux pas or fake interview ire. Via his own quiet, insinuative style, the guy has written or co-written some of the most emotional devastating and twisted rock’n’roll anthems, murder ballads, and free-form pop songs of the past half-decade and change. Most of them have been released via Cox’s Atlas Sound side project, but some of his heaviest trips come courtesy of indie-rock standard bearer act Deerhunter.
In advance of the band’s appearance at Governors Ball Music Festival 2013 next Friday, SOTC narrowed down Deerhunter’s output to the ten songs that freak us out like Poltergeist, and attempted — lower lip trembling uncontrollably — to explain why.
10. “White Ink” (Cryptograms, 2007)
“White Ink” isn’t so much a song as an expressed mood, a primo demo of early-era Deerhunter, full to the brim with the sort of hazy, reverbed-to-infinity shoegazery that nails a special sweet spot so perfectly it’s almost enough to make the hardest hearted dudes in the room weep. Its license to dread lies in the sense or possibility of menace lurking just beyond its borders: so rarified is the air “White Ink” breathes, so tender and supple its flesh, so graceful its slow-motion gyrations, that to listen to it is almost inevitably fear for its safety, and for your own. In other words, be careful.
9. “Intro/Agoraphobia” (Microcastle, 2008)
The blossoming stutter of “Intro” begets the indolent contours of an ode to a common social phobia. Sonically speaking, “Agoraphobia” is among the most heavenly songs Deerhunter has ever committed to tape; lyrically speaking, the band’s songs don’t get much more cryptic. What could be less psychologically sound than to wish — to wish — to be confined within a tiny space, to experience the devolution of your senses and eventually your bodily functions, to ultimately cease to exist? If somebody wanted to design a playlist of gorgeous post-2001 indie-rock songs that were about wanting to trade places with a Guantanamo enemy combatant (albeit unintentionally), “Agoraphobia” should sit at the top of the list.
8. “Weird Era” (Weird Era Cont, 2008)
Unabashed studio “messing-around” instrumental anti-jam par excellence, replete with loops, feedback, noodling, pitch-shifting, et al. (Sort of the “classic Deerhunter” equivalent to lost-until-fairly-recently Pavement gem “Nigel.”) Scary because going nowhere doesn’t mean one can’t wake up stuck in a inescapable nightmare world.
7. “Fluorescent Gray” (Fluorescent Gray, 2007)
Like a lot of Cox’s best songs, “Fluorescent Gray” recounts a dream — this one being some kind of meta-Saw/Criminal Minds psychological terror exercise wherein the victim is entombed in a mausoleum with a supply of fresh air, potable water, food, and a recently expired corpse (seriously). From a distance, some malevolent spirit watches the victim watch the corpse decompose. Bonus points: The corpse is someone the victim knew well. And of course, the song a lovely slice of melody, dreamy and creamy and spitting up jet fuel in flaming geysers now and again.
6. “Operation” (Weird Era Cont, 2008)
Jump-cutting willy-nilly between a waltz and a foxtrot, “Operation” plays passive against aggressive. The song is like a lover who draws you close in a passionate embrace, then willfully knees you in the jaw, then kisses the jaw, then steps on your face in a steel-toed boot, while you’re both tripping on sunshine acid. That shit: discombobulating, bewildering, cray.
5. “Sailing” (Halcyon Digest, 2010)
Is solitude isolating or freeing? That’s the question “Sailing” endeavors to answer via slide-guitar contrails and nocturnal ambiance. Though Cox ultimately settles on “freeing,” the voyage en route to that decision is fraught with tension, and your hundredth listen will be as nerve-wracking as your first.
4. “Cryptograms” (Cryptograms, 2007)
I’m not even going to endeavor to address this song in a direct way — why tapdance around the unimpeachable? — except to underline how horrific the refrain of the song is: “There was, no sound/there was, no sound/there was, no sound.” Cox touches on a theme he explored earlier in the Deerhunter canon: the loss of a sense. You probably love music, and may feel compelled to click the embedded YouTube links as you peruse this listicle. What if all of a sudden you couldn’t hear these songs? Or the fan whirring in the background? Or your boss telling you to get your ass off of the fucking Internet and back to work?
3. “T.H.M.” (Monomania, 2013)
Cox’s most discomfitting narrative songs tend to be written in the first-person; as such, the third-person “T.H.M.” represents a departure. Its slinky sinuousness — that glassy, slanted guitar — is as much of a lure as the panted beatboxing is, and while one needn’t be a brother or sister to empathize with someone bearing witness to a bad-seed sibling fucking up in the worst way imaginable, the speaker’s ce la vie ambivalence and the bandying about of those titular initials are downright stone cold.
2. “Little Kids” (Microcastle, 2008)
Pyromania might be childhood’s most dangerous temptation because fire is such an easy force to create and disseminate: the power to devastate and possible kill with very little effort (or intent!). Deal in bad-seed tendencies and herd mentalities, and everybody’s fucked. The horror of “Little Kids” lies in the moral ambiguity of its perspective and the tampon-commercial soft-focus/American gothic way that it unspools, dripping gratuitous reverb and evoking dewy, humid glens full of hollow-eyed, bedraggled orphans pouring gasoline on vagrants and burning them alive. Just thinking about this song gives me the jeebee-jeebees.
1. “Disappearing Ink” (Rainwater Cassette Exchange, 2009)
Wait, were you holding your breath this whole time? Go ahead; let it out. It’s cool. Because here it is, finally: Deerhunter’s very own Lost Highway (albeit abridged), couched, interestingly, in trashily together, post-Strokes garage-rock throb. First verse: Twilight Zone foreshadowing minus an obvious payoff. Second verse: a mundane catalogue of inanities. Main chorus: the establishment of an unrecognized horror. Final chorus: the implied descent into dementia. The more you dwell on “Disappearing Ink,” the colder your blood will run.
Deerhunter play the Governor’s Ball Music Festival 2013 on Randall’s Island on Friday, June 7.